Italian Terra Cotta Pots

Italian terra cotta pots

There are few objects in the gardening world with the iconic status of a clay pot.  The phrase terra cotte can be literally translated from the Italian as “fired earth”.  Clay is a type of dense mineral soil characterized by a reluctance to drain, and a sticky texture.  Never mind the science-every gardener knows what it is to plant into heavy clay soil.  Backbreaking.  Firing clay – slowly heating it for an extended period to a very high temperature – results in physical and chemical changes that are irrevocable. Fired earth makes objects of great service, from drain and roofing tiles to garden pots.  The fired earth is porous, meaning it will both absorb and give up water.  Why is it that a plant in a clay pot will dry out in the blink of an eye, when my clay based soil holds its water forever?  I do not know the answer to this, but I do know the porous quality of terra cotta pots is friendly to the development of good strong roots.  Container grown plants thrive in clay pots.


Some of the earliest clay pots in Italy were used to store olive oil.  This shape exists to this day.   Modern clay pots are manufactured in several ways.  Machine formed terra cotta-I have lots of those ubiquitous 8″ diameter pots.  I have bought myrtle topiaries, dahlias, and lavender planted in them.  They come in an astonishing range of sizes-from bulb pans to azalea pots to long toms-love them all.  They are a symbol and a tool for growing. These pots are inexpensive-they are mass produced, and fired at a fairly low temperature.  Knock one over and it will break. A machine made terra cotta pot left outdoors over our winter will absorb water from the ground and air.  When the water in the clay freezes, it expands.  Frozen water that expands can shatter a pot.  Machine made terra cotta is fine year round for mild climates that do not routinely experience below freezing temperatures like we do.  Treasured terra cotta pots in my zone need to come in for the winter.


Hand made terra cotta pots are not so common any more.  Many of the most  beautiful are made near Impruneta,  in Italy. Different potteries have different styles, but they all have that characteristic pale orange color that originates with the clay.  Some hand made pots are thrown on a wheel.  Others are formed by pushing the clay into a rope form using methods that are centuries old.  A handmade terra cotta pot is easy to spot.  The color, texture, and form is quite unlike any machine made terra cotta.   In a garden, the color of terra cotta is as ubiquitous and as neutral a  color as green. In this sense, neutral means expected, appropriate.  I cannot think of any plant whose beauty would be compromised by a planting in a terra cotta pot.  Funny, this.  My orange purse attracts attention.  A terra cotta pot in the garden seems so natural it is almost invisible.  Terra cotta pots in the garden-a given.


Prior to the invention of grocery stores, people grew their own fruit trees in pots, and wintered them indoors, or in an orangerie.  At that time, if you want to cook with lemons, or eat oranges, a citrus tree in a terra cotta pot was the only way.  The terra cotta pot provided a viable home for a plant far away from home.  A lemon tree in an Italian terra cotta pot is a beautiful addition to a garden, no matter where you live.  Though I like containers of different style and period, terra cotta is my material of choice.  I like the history.  I like the idea that they are fashioned from dirt and fire.  I like how my plants thrive in them.


I do not mean to suggest that terra cotta pots are only made in Italy.  Far from it!  Every gardening culture produces garden pots from fired earth.  The pot pictured above-French made. We make terra cotta pots in the US.  Whichford pottery in England makes incredibly strong and serviceable terra cotta pots.


Terra cotta pots, no matter their age, period or origin, speak strongly to all that is right with a gardening life.  These containers fashioned from fired earth can provide a good home for treasured plants.  I could never stack my handmade terra cotta pots with plants growing in plastic pots, as in the above picture.  Beautifully made terra cotta pots are what I would call sculpture.  I have one antique olive jar in my terra cotta collection. I hold my breath from the time I take it outside until after it is planted.  But I think I understand what is at work here.  Terra cotta pots, even qntiques ones, are a part of every day life, not a precious object which needs reverential treatment.


This terra cotta yard in Italy is incredibly beautiful-do you not agree?  Would that my shop could look just like this. Terra cotta pots in the garden.  Casual grass.  Gravel paths.  This is a landscape that is about utility.


The majority of the pots I have at home are terra cotta, of the handmade sort.  Hand made terra cotta from Impruneta in Italy are fashioned one at a time.  They are fired at very high temperature for a very long time.  I have left them outside over my Michigan winter without damage.  But I would not recommend that anyone else do this-too many things can go wrong.  A blocked drain hole, a heavy winter rain, or falling tree limb can spell disaster.


Rob has bought all sorts of terra cotta over the years, from many different places.  They all have their distinctive style and color.  They all look pretty good to me.  My collection of terra cotta pots provides me with so much pleasure-I would not want to do without them.


These pots are very much a part of the Italian landscape-both formal and not so formal. They are equally at home in my landscape.  And on my terrace.  One vintage Italian terra cotta pot I go so far as to keep in my living room.


Terra cotta pots are weighty, and they will break.  They won’t wait for you to find a more convenient time to water the plants inside.  They are a nuisance to store.  The little ones multiply over time.  The handmade ones are expensive.  Though they are tough to clean, they look great once they have aged.  They come in light orange, medium orange, and dark orange.  All of this-fine by me.

The Making Of The Pots

What I know about making terra cotta pots wouldn’t fill a teacup, but I have pictures.  These first four are from a book Rob bought for me in France 15 years ago.  “Terres Vernissees” by Christine Lahaussois and Beatrice Pannequin is an overview of the art of French glazed ceramics dating back to the 16th century.  This method of making large pots with wood armatures wrapped in rope is a centuries old technique.  The form begins with a series of wood verticals that describe the height of the piece, and the diameter of the top and the bottom.

Multiple wood ribs that describe the overall shape of the pot are fixed to the central verticals.  Keep in mind that the pots are made top side down.  Heavy rope is carefully wrapped around the wood ribs.  The ribs and the rope create a template for the finished shape of the pot.  Wet clay is very heavy, and very sticky.  To throw a pot of great size takes multiple passes. Only so much of the finished height of the pot can be done before the pot needs to rest, and the clay become leather hard.  Then the next layer can be added.  A giant pot thrown on a wheel all at once would collapse under its own weight.  It is much more efficient to press the sticky clay into the rope.  The form keep the clay from succumbing to gravity.

These pictures detail how the wet clay is pressed into the rope covered form.  The texture you see here-the finger marks of the person making this pot.  The evidence of the human hand-this is what these pots are all about.  These large pots have been made this way for centuries in France.  I think it is of utmost importance that this history be known, and appreciated.  I appreciate modern technology, and the important news of the moment, but there is more out there.  When I plant a beautiful handmade pot, the planting is as much about the the history of the making, and the maker of the pot, as it is about the plants.

Once the wet clay is pressed into the ropes, the wheel turns, and the surface is smoothed.  The wood form is collapsed once the clay becomes leather hard.  The clay is cut, and the form removed.  The rope? The rope is removed before the pot is fired, saved, and used again.

Rob took this picture 2 days ago.  That the construction of the giant vases has not changed for several centuries-this is very important to me.  How so?  The handmade French pots that will come to the shop in 2 months will have been made by a person, whose hand, skill and judgment will enchant me.  The history is long, the commitmment-just as long.   People who make extraordinary things-I value them.  I do what I can to support this industry, and am always sorry when I see a poterie close.  The making of the pots is an art I would like to see endure.
The finished pots in my shop do not tell this story.  Yes, they have beautiful shapes and graceful curves.  They are heavy, solid-very well made.  With proper care, they will last better than a lifetime.  But the story of how they are made makes for a story any passionate gardener would want to hear.

The finished pots-they need to rest.

Once they dry, the pots will be fired.  The rope burns, but the pattern of that rope will be fired forever into the interior of the pot.  These pots are ready to be planted.  But please note that the interior surface is every bit as beautiful as the outside.

Some of the pots get decoration.  Once the clay is leather hard, a potter will work hard to create and affix that garland, that medallion to the body of the pot.

Giant pots drying have supports.  These supports are not so fancy, just useful.  Simply useful.  Gravity can drag down wet clay.  These not so fancy supports keeps the wet clay aloft.

The attic is a perfect drying room.  Imagine that every handmade French pot gets hauled to the attic to dry.  There are a lot of steps, and a lot of hands that come together to make these pots.  When they are thoroughly dry, they will be fired.  From these hands to yours-Rob does this part.

The Faces of Italy

I have a big love for Italian gardens, and Italian garden ornament-no wonder. Rob has taken countless pictures on his trips there over the years to buy.  I own an embarassing number of books on Italian culture, gardens, villas, terra cotta, art, interiors, flora and fauna-and the history thereof. Italian gardens-those two words evoke for me all things good about  great gardens.  I go so far as to have picture books of this region or that; I am quite sure heaven looks very much like Tuscany.  My own collection of pots is almost entirely handmade Italian terra cotta-and three large English-made concrete pots in the manner of Italian terra cotta. 


I am particularly interested in the faces.  Italian pots, perhaps more so than pots from other countries, feature faces.  The faces of women, satyrs, dogs, lions, putti, gargoyles, goats, birds.  The faces of Italian life, I call them.   It is astonishing how emotionally evocative those faces are, though made of fired earth.

aug-29b-020In much the same way as I imagine the face of a person I have only talked to on the phone, I imagine plenty about Italy, based on these faces.  This face, part cat, part lion, part sun, part satyr-what is the meaning behind those wrinkled brows, and intense gaze?   I have my own mythology which I have enjoyed imagining. 

aug-29b-022 Some faces of the women can recall the Italian paintings of the Renaissance.   The modelling of the features of this face is quite extraordinarily soft and fluid. The contrast of this face, with the heft and solidity of the clay is beautiful.

Even the faces without so much detail make an impression.  This imposing face, with a shell helmet, is surely the face of the guardian of the pot.  I have never felt the need to actually research the history of the design of these pots-I like my own impressions.  But after years of looking at garden ornament, I have no problem knowing what country they come from, based on how the figure is represented.

aug-29b-023I see some of the history of Italian garden making and culture. This I get, before I ever fill them with dirt, and plant something in them.  It also makes me careful about how I plant-so that a mature planting does not obscure what is represented on the pot.


 This sculpture Rob brought back from Milan probably 14 years ago.  The lion seems horrified by what he has had to do to eat, to live.  This is a long way of saying-what a strong expression of angst.  There are those who would make a distinction between art and craft-but that argument breaks down quickly for me.  There is a story here, being eloquently and simply told.  My Italian pots are beautiful sculptures in which I make things grow.

aug-29b-026I like so much that the women have strong faces. She seems able and willing, her eyes wide open.  Those who love the surfaces of their contemporary pots take just as much pleasure as I do from mine; everyone to their point of view.

This Bacchus with the goat horns and ropy beard is smiling; those smile wrinkles at the corners of his mischievious eyes make me smile. Italian garden figures, beautifully rendered faces, a story, a tale from a moment in the history of a culture, a myth-imagine getting so much from a terra cotta pot. I will confess I put them inside for the winter-I would not want to do without them.